A beleaguered Donald Trump needed an idea for the next episode of his tragic television series, American President. Protesters riled by the death of George Floyd, a black man whose killing by police was caught on camera, were massing in cities across the country. The world knew that when protesters gathered near the White House last week, Trump had briefly been taken to shelter in a bunker. He had looked weak and this would not do.
Encouraged by one of his co-stars, his daughter Ivanka, he decided to demonstrate he was in command by leaving fortress White House and striding to a nearby Episcopal church -- historic St. John's -- where a small fire set by protesters had done damage to the basement. Cameras could capture the action as Trump struck a defiant pose -- church and state joined in one man -- to please his Christian Right base. (For Trump, who admires the movie version of General George Patton, all that was missing from his effort to evoke Old Blood and Guts was a uniform and swagger stick.)
Although core Trump supporters backed his move, the criticism has come fast and furious with even some Republican officials finding fault. In what seemed like a desperate and ahistorical defense, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tried to compare Trump's photo-opportunity to Churchill's visits to bomb-damaged neighborhoods during the World War II Blitz: "Like Churchill -- we saw him inspecting the bombing damage and it sent a very powerful message of leadership to the British people."
Anyone with a junior high grasp of history could say what was wrong with McEnany's claim. Trump didn't view any bomb damage because no bombs had exploded. He didn't even look inside the church to see the evidence of the small fire that had caused a little harm there. Londoners had been attacked repeatedly and devastatingly by foreign forces. Thousands died from air raids carried out by the Nazi regime in Germany. It bore no resemblance to a walk through a park that had been cleared of protesters by US police. Finally, Churchill was a leader who sought to unite. Trump is a divider who seems more inclined to perform than to lead.
Still the production of Trump's photo-op was smooth. The President, who told his team at the beginning of his term that they should consider their work akin to making a daily TV show, orchestrated the key members of the cast: Military and police, including some mounted on impressive horses, were summoned to stand by. The press to hear Trump deliver a line worthy of the role he was playing: "I am your president of law and order."
Nearby, Attorney General William Barr gave the order and the government forces drove away the protesters using rubber bullets, noxious gas, flash bangs, truncheons and shields. The President's path to the church was secured.
With smoke hanging in the air, the President took his cue and began striding across the White House grounds (an exclusive shooting location if ever there was one). Behind him walked the sleek Ivanka, dressed in black, carrying a white, $1,540 MaxMara bag in which she had stashed a Bible). The president's daughter had performed this way countless times, serving him as a silent figure in one of his tableaux, betraying no real emotion of her own but making sure she looked, as her father would put it, like someone selected by "central casting."
When he reached the door of God's house, President Trump didn't kneel and pray or read Scripture. He didn't ask for God to help heal an anguished country or to help him find wisdom. Instead he wielded the Bible like an auctioneer holding an item for bidders to inspect, and struck a series of poses. After calling members of his team near -- all white people, all abject White House loyalists -- he let the press capture the group photo and then called it a wrap.
The church walk was taken without consultation with the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and, it seems, without much consideration for how people outside his core supporters would regard Trump's appropriation of Jesus -- the Prince of Peace -- minutes after police, acting under the administration's orders, moved with swift violence against peaceful Americans citizens exercising their right to free assembly.
Later in the evening the show continued. Military helicopters descended so that citizens below would be battered by the prop wash, and again the cameras could record. The deafening sound evoked "Apocalypse Now." (This was, it seemed, what Trump's defense secretary meant, when he urged officials faced with protests to "dominate the battle space.") Then, after the tear gas wafted away, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, costumed in camouflage no less, surveyed the streets.
Audience response to Trump's Monday night programming included outraged complaints from the local Episcopal bishop who said, "We need moral leadership, and he's done everything to divide us." The Right Rev. Mariann Budde spoke as if Trump was a normal leader drawn to unite the country. This assumption ignores the reality of the Trump presidency. When events focus attention on him, he acts as the director and star of a TV show that forces people to take sides. Johnnie Moore, a spokesman for religious figures who support Trump clearly understood, tweeting, "I will never forget seeing @POTUS @realDonaldTrump slowly & in-total-command walk from the @WhiteHouse across Lafayette Square to St. John's Church."
Having determined that his Monday night performance worked, President Trump was at it again Tuesday, using a Catholic shrine as the backdrop for another scene in his production. Once again, he didn't ask permission, or notify anyone in the church. He just seized holy ground and stood on his mark to offer the same strange, awkward smile he flashed at St. John's.
At the Catholic shrine, it was first lady Melania Trump who was drafted to serve as his costar and human prop. When the president seemed to ask her to smile for the cameras, she apparently demurred, so he was left to flash his pearly whites alone. This time it was the Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory who complained, calling the display "reprehensible." Fox News, the reliable amen chorus for Trump, then dutifully reported that Gregory was "under fire" from those who didn't like what he said.
On Wednesday morning elements of the 82nd Airborne Division awakened at bases outside Washington, DC. They had been deployed, it seems, to support the president's threat of military action against protests that might lead to looting and other criminal acts. In fact, they would be available, also, to serve as fearsomely armed extras in the next episode of American President.
Although the president seemed immune to the negative reviews that had poured in after his two stunts -- many military figures, and Republican officials joined their voices with others -- Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made public his second thoughts. After he said he didn't think America was in a situation that required the military intervention the president had discussed, observers began to speculate about how long he would keep his job. This is the dynamic for those who join the administration believing they are to perform the duties of their office but they discover that they too are human props. The choice is to go along and find yourself deep into role-playing. (See William Barr.) Or you stay loyal to your official duties and find yourself gone. (See any number of former officials from Rex Tillerson to Gary Cohn to James Mattis.)
To understand what will come next it helps to keep in mind that Trump's entire life has been devoted, not to developing a genuine self, but to the construction of a character that would attract love and attention and respect.
In my work as his biographer I came to believe that the seed of this habit was planted when he saw his mother riveted to the TV coverage of Queen Elizabeth's coronation. Six-year-old Donald saw that his mother was enthralled by what he later called the "splendor and magnificence." Clearly this was what got her attention and as any child will tell you, a mother's attention feels like love.
Sixty-seven years after his mother taught him the power of display, we are all now props in his drama which, in addition to playing out on the screen is manifested in real life anguish, destruction and even death as protesters call attention to police killings of black citizens. The last thing America needs is a man in the Oval Office who is no more substantial than a fictional character. But that is what we have.